Archive for October 8, 2017

Sometimes, hey, it’s all about the tone.

Take, for example, Shallow Creek Cult, yet another micro-budget offering in the “found footage” sub-genre released in 2013 (although I’ve seen its actual production date listed as being 2012 and even 2009, so don’t ask me what’s up with that) that was filmed in BF Louisiana by a would-be writer/director/star who bills himself as “King Jeff.” Our guy Jeff — or our guy King, take your pick — is in good company in the pseudonym department given that the dude who plays his brother goes by the handle of “Gorio,” but beyond that, anything resembling actual originality is pretty hard to come by here : we’re told that the footage we’re about to see is property of the “Shallow Creek Police Department,” we open with snippet-length interviews of local residents talking about the supposed “cult” that operates in the area, and then we get into the “narrative” proper, which sees siblings Getty (Gorio) and Jessie (King Jeff — and from what I’m given to understand the two of them are brothers in real life) heading out to a rural campground where they spent many a happy weekend growing up in order to disperse the ashes of their recently-deceased grandfather in our titular Shallow Creek as per his final wishes. And, of course, they’re going to film the whole thing with their camcorder for posterity.

Things go wrong right off the bat — the urn slips out of their hands and sinks to the bottom of the creek  — but when Jessie steps away for a minute to answer nature’s call he comes across something that makes his funereal faux pas look like less than no big deal: a group of robed-and-masked cannibals devouring a young lady. From that point on, we’re in full-on “fight for survival mode.”

There are several glaring logical gaps along the way here — why does every local know about the cult while the brothers, who spent a good chunk of their youth in the area, have seemingly never heard of it until now? Why do the brothers head for a nearby apparently-abandoned building first thing after witnessing the bloody carnage rather than getting back in their car and going straight to the police? Why does Jessie say this one day’s misadventure (which they never even appear to take all that seriously) is a rougher slog than his entire tour of duty in Desert Storm? The mind kinda reels, to be honest.

Unless — and here’s where that “it’s all about the tone” thing comes into play — you’re prepared to just kick back and have as much fun with this thing as King Jeff and Gorio so obviously are.  Plot- wise, everything that happens in this flick is just way too convenient — the brothers conveniently find a couple of guns in the building (which actually appears to be someone’s home); they conveniently find a newspaper clipping about the cannibal cult; they conveninently find a backup camcorder battery and an extra tape, both of which are conveniently compatible with their own; the building is conveninelty outfitted with plenty of indoor and outdoor security cameras that conveninetly allow King Jeff to switch perspectives and keep his film going when the camcorder’s low on juice and/or getting kinda played-out as our sole “eye” on the proceedings; etc. In short, absurdity is built right into this film’s metaphorical DNA pretty much from word “go,” and never lets up. Your choices are pretty simple : go with the flow or throw in the towel.

For my part, what the fuck, I went with the flow, simply because it seemed like that’s all King Jeff and Gorio were doing, anyway. They knew what they were making here, knew what they had to work with, knew you’re only gonna get so far with a few friends in robes and Halloween masks — and just decided to do it regardless. It’s that fly-by-the-seat-of-its-pants attitude, and its utter refusal to take itself seriously mainly because it can’t afford to, that make Shallow Creek Cult a reasonably entertaining, if ultimately forgettable, way for a micro-budget horror fan to spend just over 70 minutes of their time. I’m not above a little bit of dumb, utterly disposable fun — and if you’re not either, you may want to give this a look sometime.

So here’s an interesting one : more or less a one-man production helmed by writer/director/cinematographer/editor/star Josh Criss, 2012’s Leaving D.C. is the working definition of a “bare-bones” production. Lower than low-budget, lower than micro-budget, we’ve straight-up landed in “no-budget” territory here, a truly homemade effort shot on a now-outdated camcorder by a guy with only a rudimentary working knowledge of what he was doing — but bound and determined, for whatever reason, to make himself a movie anyway. And he took it all the way to Amazon Prime. Not bad for what probably was a few days’ work, am I right?

Here’s the most impressive part about the entire enterprise, though : it’s actually pretty good. And not just by “vanity project” standards, but by any standards.

Criss plays Mark Klein, a guy who’s gotten fed up with the big-city rat race in our nation’s capitol (hence the title) and purchased himself a home in rural West Virginia. His friends from his OCD support group (my wife would probably point out at this juncture that I should look into signing up for such a thing myself) are curious, perhaps even concerned, about how he’s settling into life in the sticks, though, and it seems like he might actually miss the old gang himself (they sound like such a fun bunch, after all), and so he sends them regular video updates. Regular video updates that grow progressively disconcerting as the things going bump in the night in and around his “dream house” become more and more bold and aggressive. Could the answer to this mystery lie in the nearby woods? We all know, after all, that West Virginia is haunted as shit from top to bottom and always has been —

I’ll state the obvious here : Criss isn’t any better an actor than you’re probably guessing, but to his credit he has something of a likable “everyman” persona that is easy to relate to and just as easy to spend 77 minutes watching — which is a good thing, because aside from a character named Claire (played by Karin Crighton), who appears for all of about five minutes, he’s literally the only person we see. He’s nowhere near charismatic or engaging enough to carry a bona fide “production” on his own, by any means, but that’s where this flick’s bargain-basement aesthetic works in its favor : ya see, it all feels reasonably authentic, like here’s just some regular dude with a regular life dealing with some highly irregular problems. As a result, you find yourself rooting for Mark/Josh — you want him to successfully navigate his way through these ghostly goings-on and come out the other side with his fragile grip on reality/sanity reasonably intact.

These days, of course — all of five years down the road — odds are that Criss would be shooting this thing on an iPhone (and who knows, maybe he’ll do just that if he ever feels the need to crank out a sequel), but the “instantly-dated” feel of this film adds a layer of charm to it as well when seen in 2017. We’re at the point where nostalgia kicks in pretty quick as technology evolves on a near-daily basis, and while this certainly doesn’t evoke the “retro” sentiments of watching, say, a 1980s SOV movie or anything, it’s “lo-fi” enough by current standards to make you yearn for simpler (relatively speaking, mind you) times. If I’d watched it when it came out, of course, this wouldn’t factor in as either a “plus” or a a”minus” in the film’s favor, but I didn’t, and so there you have it.

Add in some genuinely well-executed tension, a methodically-paced plot that ramps up the “fear factor” both gradually and deliberately, and some surprisingly inventive camcorder work from time to time, and what you have is a very pleasant surprise indeed. I wouldn’t hesitate in recommending Leaving D.C. to just about anybody — those already on the “zero-budget wavelength” are going to be much more forgiving of its flaws, both because we’re used to this sort of thing and, hey, we’ve seen worse, but for those who are wondering what the whole “homemade horror movie thing” is all about, this is as good an introduction to the sub-genre as I can think of. Maybe even good enough to turn some of the curious into converts.